Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

Started Dec 11, 2017 | Questions
vett93
vett93 Veteran Member • Posts: 4,913
Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
2

I have seen lots of YouTube videos explaining the benefits of parabolic softboxes and umbrellas. My takeaway from them is that they would yield more focused light and the light has less spray.

In practice, do you see enough differences to justify buying them when you already have regular ones?

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MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
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vett93 wrote:

I have seen lots of YouTube videos explaining the benefits of parabolic softboxes and umbrellas. My takeaway from them is that they would yield more focused light and the light has less spray.

In practice, do you see enough differences to justify buying them when you already have regular ones?

95% of the modifiers sold as "parabolic" simply aren't, and 95% of the videos on Youtube about parabolic modifiers are complete BS in many regards.

I've written a long boring post in another forum, which doesn't exactly answers your questions and may contain plenty of mistakes, but may still be helpful (and probably is a lot more than a lot of videos and articles on the web) : http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/1508979

It's still, unfortunately, an over-simplification.

I've re-arranged it a bit here :

a) Regarding the term "parabolic" : it has a precise definition that entails a precise result, and most modifiers sold as "parabolic" simply aren't shaped at all like a paraboloid and aren't even trying. Parabolic doesn't mean that the modifier is deep, it means that it conforms to a specific mathematical definition of the arc shape - wikipedia's article on the matter is explicit enough in that regard.

As a result, NONE of the deep umbrellas on sale today are parabolic modifiers, because their arc shape is nowhere near the definition of a parabola. In fact, a shallower Paul Buff PLM is closer to that definition.

A perfectly parabolic reflector with a perfect mirror finish has a focal point, and if a light source is at this focal point, it will reflect the light rays from the light source in a perfectly parallel beam, like this :

@Parabolix

An example of a modifier that tried to get as close as possible to that definition is the Broncolor Satellite, and it's very shallow:

As a result, a shallower Paul Buff PLM can send light at a rather tight beam angle. Below, a Chinese copy of the extreme silver PLM vs a 20° grid:

b) White materials will scatter the light in all directions, regardless of the angle of the light ray that hits them. A perfect mirror will bounce the light at the opposite angle at which the light ray hit it, a bit like a ping pong ball (without spin :D). Silver materials are, in a way, imperfect mirrors. They vary in terms of reflectiveness. Some of them are quite reflective and won't scatter the light much, others are designed to scatter it a bit more. To sum it up in a over-simplified way :

The result of this is that :
- there isn’t such a thing as a white parabolic modifier. Since the main property of a parabolic modifier is its ability to re-direct light rays in a specific direction, a material that scatters light rays in all directions negates the interest of the paraboloid shape. Some would argue that Paul Buff’s soft silver PLMs aren’t parabolic reflectors either as the material scatters light too much, but I have a less finite opinion.
- Moving the light source inside a white reflector will not change much the beam angle of that modifier : it’s always going to scatter light in all directions. Differences will be marginal.
- On the contrary, silver reflectors are more or less heavily relying on where the light source is positioned relative to them. Moving the light source relative to the umbrella, either laterally or closer/further out, can very significantly change the beam angle, or the effective size of the modifier (from the subject’s point of view). The more scattering the silver material is, the less sensitive it is to light source position.

Paul Buff used to sell the exact same umbrella shape (the PLM) in white, and two silver materials, with different scattering properties, soft silver, and extreme silver, to benefit from the different characteristics of each material.

Broncolor’s smaller 88 and 133 paras use a slightly more scattering material than their bigger ones, because it improves the quality of the illumination from the subject’s point of view and most people don’t really like the look of a really hard parabolic modifier anyway.

c) Adding diffusion over a parabolic, pseudo parabolic, or deep silver reflector will instantly negate a good chunk of its directional aspect, since diffusion scatters light rays. Here is, on the left, an extreme-like silver umbrella, without diffusion, and on the right the same umbrella, but with Paul Buff’s front diffuser :

Some diffusion materials might be weak enough that they will scatter the light only a little bit. The Paul Buff fabric above is quite dense. Broncolor sells different front baffles for their paras, with different optical densities, precisely to vary the impact of the diffusion material.

d) effective modifying size and appearance from the subject’s POV (i.e., what it will look like on your subject in terms of specularity, shadows, etc.) can be different from the physical size or appearance the modifier.

With silver reflectors, since they bounce and re-direct light, only the areas of the umbrella that effectively re-direct light towards your subject will directly contribute to the light quality falling on your subject. From the latter’s point of view, these areas will be illuminated. The areas of the umbrella that re-direct light somewhere else, or don’t receive light in the first place, will look dark from its point of view. With deep umbrellas, what you get usually is this (compared here a Profoto deep with a shallower PLM-like silver umbrella) :

The result is that for most intents and purposes, deep silver umbrellas are much smaller effective modifiers then shallower pseudo-parabolic umbrellas like PLMs. There are a few exceptions (for example if your subject is so close that it's nearly touching the shaft, and you've shoved a strobe with an omnidirectional flash tube all the way in), but in practice they're rare. In most scenarios the outer area, even if it's struck by light coming from an omnidirectional flash tube, isn't oriented in such a way that it can bounce back light towards the subject.

You can also notice that both umbrellas are illuminated in a bicycle wheel pattern. That’s because of two things :
- the silver material used in both of these umbrellas is quite reflective, and
- because they are 16 sided fabric modifiers, they are imperfectly shaped, and only the middle area of the fabric between the ribs is effectively in the right orientation to be able to re-direct light rays towards the subject.
The result is that catchlights might exhibit this bicycle wheel pattern, and you may see multiple, stepped shadows appear. Basically, instead of behaving like one light source, they behave like 16 elongated light sources.

Paul Buff’s soft silver umbrellas use a silver material that’s just scattering enough that this bicycle wheel pattern doesn’t appear. It will look like this (extreme on the left, soft on the right) :

But since the material scatters light a little bit more, it isn’t quite as directional as its extreme silver cousin (extreme on the left, soft on the right) :

That being said, you can still see in the above shot that the soft silver can be configured to produce a hot spot that more or less corresponds to the area lit by the more extreme version, with the head in the same position. So some of its pseudo parabolic DNA is still there.

It still remains quite a lot tighter than, for example, a white umbrella (soft silver on the left, white - BTW a deep one - on the right) :

All of these comparisons were made with the light modifier on axis with the camera’s lens (i.e., the subject), but you may very well want to feather the light (albeit with highly directional silver umbrellas, there isn’t much feathering room to be honest). when you feather the light, you will see the effective modifying area of the umbrella change, move to the side, etc…

Since white reflectors scatter light in all directions, their fabric doesn’t have to be in a precise orientation to re-direct light towards your subject. As a result they don’t suffer from this bicycle wheel pattern look. But how your strobe is positioned, how its flash tube is designed and which reflector is used can still matter in terms of illumination evenness.

e) "Spill" / "spray" can have various origins, but one of the most common causes with umbrellas is bare flash tube spill, i.e. when the flash tube is visible from the sides. In the following photo :

- the blue arrow corresponds to the area that's illuminated by the light reflected by the umbrella,
- the red arrow to the area that's illuminated by the strobe's bare flash tube if it hasn't been properly killed by a spill kill reflector or by other means. Very often people say that umbrellas, even silver ones, have massive spill, while they don't bother to effectively kill the spill from the bare flash tube,
- and the green arrow to the area that's illuminated by the light reflected from the subject (if your subject is a white wall, it will matter).

That's been taken with a Profoto B2 without a spill kill modifier, and with the Cactus umbrella slightly forward from the head (hence why you see a streak of light coming from the bare tube). If I had used a flash with an external flash tube and without a spill kill modifier, bare tube illumination would be massive and cover a much wider angle.

Bare flash tube spill can be useful, for example if you want to benefit from the flash tube’s exposition to use a bounce reflector in addition to the umbrella. But it’s a good thing to eliminate it properly, at least when comparing spill from different modifiers :D.

So to answer more precisely your question :

Regarding fabric modifiers, the main benefit FOR ME of attempting to reach a shape that's as close as possible to a paraboloid, is that you can reduce the amount of scattering a silver material requires to avoid an uneven or bicycle wheel illumination pattern when looking into the modifier, which can produce unwanted results (such as stepped, multiple shadows). So you can get both a rather precise beam of light, and a reasonably even and trouble-free illumination pattern. The Broncolor 88 and 133 are pretty good in that regard, for example. And in a diminished capacity, since it isn't quite as well shaped (but still far better than any other silver umbrella, particularly the deep ones), the Paul Buff PLM soft silver is pretty good too, as you've seen above.

In more general terms high-end paras are mostly prized for their versatility. But some of the effects they're famous for (such as the ring of light in the defocused position) are less a result of them being parabolic than of them being designed in a specific way. For example, regarding the ring of light, it's just because their outer area is in the right orientation to bounce back light towards the subject at most common distances while the centre isn't in the right orientation to do so.

The great news is that most people don't need an exacting parabolic modifier. Personally as long as I have reasonable directionality and a reasonably even, spoke-less illumination, I'm happy. A Paul Buff PLM soft silver meets my personal sweet spot but there are plenty of other interesting solutions, most of which aren't parabolic, and don't even have to be to prove satisfying.

A modifier doesn't need to be parabolic to already be quite versatile and provide a variety of different light qualities.

So I'd focus less on trying to find a parabolic modifier than on finding a modifier that suits your needs. Apparently it's about getting a tighter beam angle, and that doesn't necessarily require an exact parabolic shape, nor does it require a deep one. Depends on where you want the trade-offs to be :D.

Sailor Blue
Sailor Blue Forum Pro • Posts: 15,527
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
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Nice explanation of what is and what isn't a parabolic light source MayaTlab0.

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Don89 Senior Member • Posts: 1,612
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
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Sailor Blue wrote:

Nice explanation of what is and what isn't a parabolic light source MayaTlab0.

Many folks put an outer difuser with a “parabolic” modifier which nullifies the effect of a parabolic.   If that’s the case don’t bother with the marketing hype.

A real or close-to parabolic, sized and distanced and feathered properly, gives an excellent look.   No need for fill in many cases.    And I love fill...

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vett93
OP vett93 Veteran Member • Posts: 4,913
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

Thanks for the explanation. Very useful!

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tdwesbo
tdwesbo Senior Member • Posts: 2,127
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
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This post is the best thing on dpreview right now

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Hosko Contributing Member • Posts: 812
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

This could be the best post I have ever seen on here. Thanks

MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

Hope it's not too confusing. This video is pretty good too :

I covers a lot of interesting points and set them in motion, such as how the silver material reflects light, seeing things from the subject's point of view, the impact of feathering the para, its versatility, etc.

You'll notice that despite having 24 sides and a shape that's as good as it gets for fabric modifiers, because it uses a very shiny, hard silver material, you still get a bicycle wheel pattern in terms of illumination or multiple light sources instead of one. The smaller paras (88, 133) counteract that by using a slightly more scattering material. If it isn't clear already I really dislike that bicycle wheel pattern, but some people really like that look, so it's up to your own preferences.

FJ Westcott
FJ Westcott Regular Member • Posts: 298
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

MayaTlab0 wrote:

You'll notice that despite having 24 sides and a shape that's as good as it gets for fabric modifiers, because it uses a very shiny, hard silver material, you still get a bicycle wheel pattern in terms of illumination or multiple light sources instead of one. The smaller paras (88, 133) counteract that by using a slightly more scattering material. If it isn't clear already I really dislike that bicycle wheel pattern, but some people really like that look, so it's up to your own preferences.

Great and informative posts from MayaTlab0 in this thread.

As stated, the benefit to paras is in their versatility.  Using diffusion offers just one more option for producing variation.  If you are looking to produce a particular look, a para might not be the modifier you want.  If you want something that offers a lot of looks from one modifier then your investment would likely be worth it.

FYI the deep silver umbrellas from Westcott use a slightly more scattering material for the reasons given in MayaTlab0's post.

Pete@Westcott

MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

FJ Westcott wrote:

As stated, the benefit to paras is in their versatility. Using diffusion offers just one more option for producing variation. If you are looking to produce a particular look, a para might not be the modifier you want. If you want something that offers a lot of looks from one modifier then your investment would likely be worth it.

+1. If I were interested in a Broncolor para, for example, that would be mostly to get a very large degree of versatility in one modifier. Besides that, the construction and operational qualities (ease of deployment, etc.) are pretty neat.

Good news for my wallet : I don't think I need that degree of versatility or exactitude :D.

FYI the deep silver umbrellas from Westcott use a slightly more scattering material for the reasons given in MayaTlab0's post.

Is it similar to deep Elinchrom's ? I haven't used your umbrellas, but Elinchrom ones use a material that is slightly more scattering than the one I always see in other deep silver umbrellas (Profoto, Jinbei, Interfit, probably most others use the exact same material). That said I still found it a bit harder than I'd like to eliminate the issue of multiple shadows and slightly harsher look. But that's just mostly a personal preference and anyway it's a trade off between directionality and illumination, so there are pluses and minuses on both sides.

If the number of sides (the higher, the better) and the type of material used are I believe by far the most important factors, I think that there are other, more pernicious factors at play when it comes to the bicycle wheel pattern.

Beware : unbridled use of the Apple's Markup feature below.

One, particularly with umbrellas, is improper tension between the modifier's ribs. Below an example. On the left, a Cotswoldphoto 105cm silver umbrella, and on the right, a Paul Buff soft silver PLM.

If tension is improper, it means that the silver fabric near the ribs is not properly oriented to re-direct light rays in a directional manner.

When the umbrella is particularly badly manufactured, results can be quite hideous. Below a Cactus 150cm, which tension between the ribs was execrable, particularly where the red arrows point :

Most of the light hitting the umbrella near the ribs went elsewhere but towards the subject.

I also believe that the size of the light source can have a small, but perhaps noticeable effect, maybe in a way that is similar to what the drawing below suggests :

But that's probably nowhere near as important as the number of sides and the material used.

threw the lens
threw the lens Senior Member • Posts: 2,760
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

I am putting a light modifier setup for experimenting with portraits. I already have a cheap shoot-through diffusing umbrella, for the speed of setting up. It's just white fabric and a big diffusing surface basically.

I like these umbrella things for the ease in popping them up and I was thinking of another more versatile modifier, a shoot-through reflector umbrella that is quite deep and almost parabolic, that uses a reflector dish in the middle to lessen the dark spot in the middle you'd get by placing the flash inside the umbrella. Are these going to be any better for even light (without the diffuser panel) than an umbrella where you bounce the flash at the back of the umbrella?

Said umbrella can be bought as a kit with front diffuser panel and also honeycomb grid so ostensibly it has several options- a tightish source of harder light, diffused light, or diffused light that doesn't spill too much to the sides. Does the number of spines/sides on the panel matter a great deal if light doesn't get lost in the area of the spines under too little tension? Cheapish umbrellas have 8.

MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?
1

It's difficult for me to picture in my mind the modifier you described. A link could possibly help.

That said, I probably won't have a strong opinion on it. I prefer to keep it to the modifiers I've directly tried or for things that a simple picture can tell (for example it's quite easy with just a picture to know if the arc shape is roughly parabolic or not).

If there's anything worth taking from my long boring post above is : it's complicated. Simple marketing buzzwords such as "parabolic" or "silver" or "deep" are nowhere near good enough to determine what sort of light you'll get out of a modifier, and personal experimentation is key.

threw the lens
threw the lens Senior Member • Posts: 2,760
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

I think it's not truly parabolic. To be fair it doesn't claim to be parabolic. It is a Godox DH6.

The Godox shop also sell a Jinbei that it does claim to be parabolic. But I'm puzzled as to what difference the parabolic is to make as it seems to be a double diffuser panel design where the light shoots through the back.

Don89 Senior Member • Posts: 1,612
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

threw the lens wrote:

I think it's not truly parabolic. To be fair it doesn't claim to be parabolic. It is a Godox DH6.

The Godox shop also sell a Jinbei that it does claim to be parabolic. But I'm puzzled as to what difference the parabolic is to make as it seems to be a double diffuser panel design where the light shoots through the back.

Double difused simply makes it a round softbox   Remove the outer difuser the look differs, more contrast.   Remove both difuser and shield the flash tube gets you another look.   Totally bare yields yet another look.  Feathered also changes up results.

Small parabolics and large ones also differ in looks.

Wanna drool?  Rent a Broncolor Para 88-220.  Then go into withdraw when returned.    You may not recover.  

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MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

threw the lens wrote:

I think it's not truly parabolic. To be fair it doesn't claim to be parabolic. It is a Godox DH6.

Not parabolic indeed. But a lot of unkown factors to consider besides the shape, such as the diffusion material's strength, and some with which I have very little experience with (I haven't used much soft boxes alongside deflector panels).

The Godox shop also sell a Jinbei that it does claim to be parabolic. But I'm puzzled as to what difference the parabolic is to make as it seems to be a double diffuser panel design where the light shoots through the back.

Nowhere near a paraboloid. The arc shape doesn't match a parabola :

That being said, there are plenty of such rather deep 16 sided softboxes around which many people enjoy, and you may not necessarily need a parabolic modifier in the first place.

Regarding diffusion, maybe there still are some interesting benefits to having a parabolic shape, even when the light is directly mounted (at the focal point). Probably not in terms of beam angle (as you can see above the extreme silver-like umbrella starts to send light at a wider angle when adding PCB's PLM diffuser), but maybe in terms of illumination evenness if the diffusion is weak and the silver material quite "extreme". If the diffusers are strong it probably doesn't matter much what's behind.

threw the lens
threw the lens Senior Member • Posts: 2,760
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

Thanks a lot. I'm assuming 'deflector panel' is the screw-on dish reflecting the light around the umbrella a bit like in a mirror lens in reverse. I looked it up and it looks like a hammerite texture type of finish, not mirror finish. I like the idea, I just have never knowingly seen one in action.

When you say you like the soft-silver umbrella (Paul Buff?) do you mean it looks like the matte side of aluminum foil?

MayaTlab0 Senior Member • Posts: 2,982
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

threw the lens wrote:

I'm assuming 'deflector panel' is the screw-on dish

Yes, that thingy thing. Sorry I'm not exactly sure how it's supposed to be called. Elinchrom users can make very good use of the deflector kit with most of their modifiers (including their softboxes) to reach a similar effect, and with a bit of DIY you can do the same with Profoto's older heads or the B2 (basically any head with the umbrella hole within the modifier's mount diameter).

When you say you like the soft-silver umbrella (Paul Buff?) do you mean it looks like the matte side of aluminum foil?

It probably isn't the exact equivalent, but I like the analogy :D. You could say indeed that the "extreme" silver PLM is a bit like the shiny side, while the "soft" silver is more like the matte one.

But the reason I personally like the soft silver PLM isn't that it's matte or shiny, it's that it doesn't exhibit a strong uneven bicycle wheel pattern. Broncolor's 88 and 133 paras use a slightly shinier material (maybe half way between the soft and extreme PLMs ? I'm not sure), but they still don't exhibit a strong bicycle wheel pattern because they're shaped better. It's less the material itself that I like about the soft silver PLM than the fine-tuned interaction between the shape and the material :D. But that's just a personal preference for spokeless illumination patterns.

Simon Barker Contributing Member • Posts: 837
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

threw the lens wrote:

The Godox shop also sell a Jinbei that it does claim to be parabolic. But I'm puzzled as to what difference the parabolic is to make as it seems to be a double diffuser panel design where the light shoots through the back.

Actually the Broncolor Para works like this too, you can use it as a standard reflector. It's designed to let you mount a Broncolor head directly, the focusing rod they sell separately just mounts in place of the head and lets your reverse mount stuff at the end of the rod.

Equally so the people making these softboxes also make copies of the Broncolor focusing rod, some are even fairly good copies (not the softboxes though, they don't really compare to a Para).

It does allow you to change the output but it is definitely not the same as a true parabolic design, the light will bounce all around the softbox regardless of position unlike a true parabolic design.

threw the lens
threw the lens Senior Member • Posts: 2,760
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

This thread set me thinking and nosing around a few articles.

Seemed to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, that a translucent white umbrella has the most diffuse and uncontrolled spill, and the softbox with diffuser had more controlled spill especially with honeycomb grid. The reflector umbrellas create harder/more specular light but spill, and the point of parabolic umbrellas is the harder/more specular light but much less spill. Beauty dish light is also quite hard and with a honeycomb grid the direction is also tightly controlled.

It occured to me that the lighting umbrella with reflector dish is really a pop-up beauty dish. Perhaps there are some good ones but among the available options I went for a conventional beauty dish because it came with a finer honeycomb grid to spill as little light as possible. The main concern with them is that they're not very big so need to be put closer.

I liked the extensive single-light modifier comparisons on this polish page with the gorgeous face.

Sailor Blue
Sailor Blue Forum Pro • Posts: 15,527
Re: Parabolic softbox/umbrella in practice?

threw the lens wrote:

This thread set me thinking and nosing around a few articles.

Seemed to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, that a translucent white umbrella has the most diffuse and uncontrolled spill, and the softbox with diffuser had more controlled spill especially with honeycomb grid. The reflector umbrellas create harder/more specular light but spill, and the point of parabolic umbrellas is the harder/more specular light but much less spill. Beauty dish light is also quite hard and with a honeycomb grid the direction is also tightly controlled.

A white umbrella, whether in reflection mode or shoot through mode can produce soft lighting, with how soft depending on size and distance.

When close to the subject a reflection umbrella can have a darker center spot while a shoot through one can have a hot center spot.

A shoot through umbrella is a light grenade, blasting out light in a sphere all around the umbrella, which can produce a lot of stray light.  When a reflection umbrella is used with a black backing the stray light is reduced more than 50% due to the cupped shape of the umbrella.  Add a front diffuser to a reflection umbrella and it becomes a softbox.

A silvered reflection umbrella produces a harder light than a white reflection one.  How hard depends on both the fabric (shiny, pebbled, or matte) and the distance.

It occured to me that the lighting umbrella with reflector dish is really a pop-up beauty dish.

The lighting from a beauty dish is pretty much unique.  A few of the best umbrella beauty dishes come close but there are still differences.  A parabolic reflector or umbrella isn't even close.  How important these differences are depends on the use and user.

Perhaps there are some good ones but among the available options I went for a conventional beauty dish because it came with a finer honeycomb grid to spill as little light as possible. The main concern with them is that they're not very big so need to be put closer.

I liked the extensive single-light modifier comparisons on this polish page with the gorgeous face.

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